11 educators share how they bring coding into the classroom

By now, most educators understand the importance of coding. Programmers continue to be in high demand, and coding improves much-needed skills like creativity, persistence, problem solving, and critical thinking.

But just because you know you should teach something, doesn’t mean you can. Perhaps you can’t figure out how to fit it into your already crowded curriculum, or maybe you’re intimidated to try. eSchool News is here to help.

We asked 11 Sphero Heroes—teachers from all over the U.S. who are using Sphero robots to transform teaching and learning in their classrooms and beyond—to share their expertise about bringing coding into the classroom.

Here is their advice.

11 ways to teach coding skills

1. “Bring coding into your classroom by thinking big picture. Talk about computational thinking first in real-world situations, like ‘How can we break this problem down and solve it?’ Coding isn’t just syntax! It’s about knowing the basic chunks like if/else and loops, and those can be discussed real world daily. My high school girls in programming go for internship interviews and they are repeatedly told that memorizing languages doesn’t matter nearly as much as knowing how to start breaking problems down.”
Brandy New, instructional technology coordinator, Hardin County (KY) Schools

2. “Start from day 1. You and your students will not see it as one more thing to do, but as a part of what you do. Jump in head first, fight the disequilibrium, allow students and yourself to learn. You will encounter challenges; don’t give up. Coding can bring a level of authentic engagement to our classrooms that we’ve never experienced.”
—Michael Cullen, elementary science program specialist, Marion County (FL) Public Schools 

3. “Bringing coding into the classroom does not need to be scary! Sometimes we as teachers struggle with wanting to master content first before teaching when sometimes the most transformational moments for our kids are watching us fail forward. Just adding one or two elements of coding to a unit or project opens the door for students to think in more creative ways and builds their own comfort with it.”
Hannah Jimenez, digital learning specialist, Lenoir County (NC) Public Schools

4. “My best advice is to let go of being the expert. You are there to guide students in the process and encourage them to show the persistence to overcome obstacles. It is okay if you do not exactly know how do something. It is a wonderful thing when you learn side by side with your students.”
—Chris Schmitz, computer technology teacher, St. Vrain Valley (CO) School District 


Is it time to say goodbye to textbooks?

People have been predicting the end of the traditional, paper-based textbook for years. A McKinsey & Company study from 2014 suggested that textbook rentals would cannibalize new-textbook sales by 2017, resulting in a reduction in new-book sales of 5 to 10 percent by 2020. eSchool News recently spoke with Matthew Glotzbach, chief executive officer of Quizlet—the extremely popular site that offers tools for students to make study sets that can be used for flashcards, learning activities, and games—about the future of textbooks.

Q: What’s your take on Bill and Melinda Gates’ 2019 annual letter regarding the point “textbooks are becoming obsolete?”

A: The traditional textbook has been in a state of transformation for some time now, and 2019 marks an important year of acceptance from the education industry and outside influencers who recognize where its path is leading. Those of us in the industry have all heard about the impending “death of the textbook.” We live in an increasingly digital world and students spend a lot of time using technology to connect to people, to be entertained, and to learn. It’s this third piece that we are finally embracing.

About 10 years ago, in 2010, when Common Core was launched in the U.S., the standards became a forcing function to revisit traditional learning materials teachers had been using. The required change came at a time when, as teachers began to explore and embrace alternative resources, many began to adopt technologies for the classroom too.

Related: 10 findings about K-12 digital learning

Fast-forward to today. This shift has resulted in the phenomenon of unbundling content, the idea that education is customizable. We now see teachers leveraging everything from Youtube videos and games to engage students, to edtech platforms that offer online quizzes and activities that can track student progress. Textbook content is still important, but its form factor doesn’t fit the media-rich world around us. That content needs to be flexible and in a format that can work well with the other tools teachers and students are already using.

Q: How does the death of the textbook affect costs for education materials, or does it?

A: No doubt the transition we are experiencing, as education adopts more digital materials over printed ones, is not simple. On one hand, digitizing content from textbooks takes out the heavy cost and logistics of printing, distributing, and housing millions of physical books. On the other hand, the quality of the content comes from a lot of back-end work to research, curate, and produce accurate, attractive, and engaging materials regardless of the medium in which it’s distributed. Legacy contracts and approaches to selecting and adopting education materials are still finishing out their cycles in the system.

Clearly, there is more to figure out as the industry navigates these crossroads, but we’re already seeing the digital marketplace open up opportunity for non-traditional content creators to compete alongside traditional publishers, without barriers to region or prior distribution relationships and pricing models.

This means more choice for students and teachers to find new resources that fit their needs. The growing inventory of materials by a broader array of creators is the chance for education to become more cost-effective and more personalized overall—and that is an exciting opportunity for all stakeholders.

Q: What are some of the types of innovative technologies replacing the traditional textbook? How are they shaping the future of education?

A: When we look at what’s happening today, we can see some really effective technology in place providing more efficiency and access to education. Things like video-based lessons, which allow students to re-watch pieces they don’t understand, are a significant step in helping learners access and grasp new information. We are also witnessing adaptive practice in which technology recognizes what students are getting wrong on tests and homework. This is just a taste of what’s possible.

Related: New report reveals 10 ways students are outpacing their schools

Every day, people are having conversations with their Alexa or Google Assistant, requesting knowledge from endless databases of information. Advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning are changing how we approach learning and measure success. We have started to see AI capabilities that help teachers grade tests and review papers, giving them time back to be with students and focus in on their individual needs. As technology continues to evolve, we will likely see it playing a facilitating role in assessing the student’s level of understanding.

Imagine AI-powered software that could understand what a student is saying when answering a question, identify what the student is missing in their answer, then guide them through a progressive set of questions until the full connection is made. This is now well within the realm of possibility.

Q: How is edtech preparing Generation Z students to survive the future of work?

A: Beyond democratizing access to education, edtech is providing students with important life skills to be better prepared for adulthood and the workforce. Learning how to analyze data and code will be the foundation for innovation that helps us solve some of the world’s biggest problems. But soft skills are more difficult to teach, and equally as valuable as the hard skills. Well-designed edtech tools that engage students and progress them forward are great at promoting critical thinking and problem solving. Especially in the era of fake news, it’s vital to provide students with the opportunity to practice analyzing information instead of just regurgitating it.

Edtech focused on gamifying learning can help boost confidence through teamwork and friendly competition. Games give students a safe space to fail, while encouraging them to actively consider and retain information. And there are tools that recognize the incredible value of collaboration, providing communities of students the opportunity to learn together and support one another’s journeys. If we are doing our jobs right, we’ll continue to create and evolve education-focused technologies that give everyone opportunities for a bright future.


10 activities to integrate SEL in your classroom

Students are at their best in environments that focus on respecting and educating them as whole people. Research shows that students whose social emotional learning (SEL) needs are prioritized and consistently met do better long term in not only academics but in overall personal and professional growth and success.

If you find yourself wondering what that means for teachers or how you can integrate SEL activities into your curriculum and classroom, these 10 activities are a great place to start.

10 low-tech ways to bring SEL into your classroom

1. Games

Gamified learning activities help build and strengthen cognitive abilities such as memory, decision-making, and logic, but they can also be viewed as fun activities to promote SEL in the classroom. Playing games in your classroom encourages students to interact with peers to achieve an objective, either collectively or competitively. Make your own question-and-answer games with students working individually or in pairs or groups to answer questions about lessons or play Pictionary or Charades and have students draw or act out elements from the curriculum.

2. THINK-ing about our words

One of my favorite acronyms for teaching the responsibility of our words is T.H.I.N.K. It promotes kindness in the classroom by considering if the words we speak to others are:

  • True
  • Helpful
  • Inspiring
  • Necessary
  • Kind

In addition to teaching students to be kind to others, it is important to teach them to be kind to themselves. Introduce positive alternatives to common negative phrases students use when speaking about themselves and repeat them often. Correct and model these phrases for students: “Instead of ‘I’m not good at this’ we say, ‘Learning takes time.’” Post the phrases around the classroom and encourage students to review them when discouraged about their learning.

3. Partner and group work

Group/partner projects are important to encourage communication, emotional awareness, teamwork, and accountability. Working with a partner or in small groups encourages mindfulness in students of their own emotions and communication, especially when feedback is given correctly, as Elena Ontiveros points out in this blog post: “When feedback is conducted in groups, it’s easier to demonstrate what students can learn from one another, and talk through the reasons certain suggestions are made.” Partner projects also create opportunities for students to observe and gain an understanding of how other people work and communicate differently and develop empathy and respect for others.

4. Roleplay

Roleplaying activities can teach compassion and perspective. By acting out scenes from the viewpoint of someone else, students are pushed to view scenarios from a perspective outside their own and use critical-thinking, decision-making, and even conflict-resolution skills. Activities where students are encouraged to act out scenarios involving being both the bully and being bullied help students learn cause and effect as well as empathy. You may even ask your students to roleplay as you to see how they view your teaching practices!


How 4 schools are improving student motivation

When students feel motivated, everything is better–grades, class engagement, standardized test scores, and determination. That’s why improving student motivation is at the top of many administrators’ to-do lists.

If motivation is a person’s willingness to do something or behave in a specific way, improving student motivation is key to improving achievement: students who are motivated to learn are more likely to achieve than students who are not motivated, according to Finding the Formula: Understanding How Schools Can Improve Student Motivation.

The report, from America Achieves, argues that student motivation is central to each person’s learning experience, but improving student motivation is often overlooked in school reform issues because it is often considered a trait students either do or don’t have.

Read more: Helping ALL students feel like they belong

What role, then, do schools and educators have in improving student motivation? It all comes down to a framework of rigor, relevance, and relationships.

Here’s how four schools, profiled in the report, are improving student motivation through the framework.

1. The Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science, and Technology (GSMST) in Atlanta serves a primarily minority student population with about 30 percent economically disadvantaged. GSMST, which is an American Achieves Global Learning Network school, was top-ranked in 2018 and has a 100 percent AP participation rate, along with dramatically outperforming its fellow district schools on math and reading proficiency. The school doesn’t just aim for college readiness–students graduate ready to tackle upper-level college courses, grad school, and then become industry leaders or enroll in doctoral programs. Those expectations come through in the school’s practices and graduation requirements. The school also gives students choice to pursue pathways that most closely resemble their personal and career interests and goals. Students also build relationships with internship mentors.


3 quick & easy ways I connect with parents

Parents are at the center of a child’s academic success. A Columbia University study done in 2017 revealed that when the parents of middle- and high-schoolers received texts each week outlining their child’s grades, absences, or missed assignments—an example of a strategy known as “nudge interventions”—there was a 39-percent reduction in course failures and an 18-percent increase in student attendance.

A successful relationship between educators and parents requires this sort of constant communication, whether via phone call, email, or even an in-person conversation.

Related: 4 evidence-based ways parents improve student achievement

1. Establish a positive relationship

Within the first week of school, I try to contact every single parent or caregiver of my 75 students and make a positive point of contact with them. For example, to the parents of a student who enrolled after the school year had started, I wrote: “Good evening! I wanted to let you know I am proud of Anthony’s efforts. He’s had a fabulous first few days and I am so glad he joined us.”

To another set of parents, I wrote, “Good evening. I wanted to let you know how much I enjoy having Nathan in class. He’s been a great role model for his peers and consistently follows procedures. I appreciate his efforts and I’m so glad he’s in our class.”

I like to keep parents in the loop at all times, so each day I send out updates about upcoming tests, attach study guides, or include a monthly calendar with upcoming events.

2. Use social media to share students’ work

We have a grade-level Facebook page where we post updates and pictures from our classroom. I also have a Twitter spreadsheet that’s posted in my Google Classroom. My students are allowed to go in and tweet during their free time. Then I approve it and tweet it from our class Twitter feed.


Do teacher prep programs need an overhaul?

Teacher prep programs are failing to pay attention to the content knowledge teacher candidates need, and an astonishingly high number of elementary teacher candidates fail professional licensing tests teach year, according to a new report.

A new analysis from the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) reveals that few teacher preparation programs either conduct any sort of screening or require specific coursework in the subject area knowledge traditionally taught in elementary grades.

The fact that more candidates fail their professional exams on their first attempt (54 percent) than pass them suggests a lack of adequate preparation and lies in stark comparison to other professions–nursing, for example, achieves an 85 percent first-time pass rate, according to the report.

Read more: 5 big ideas for innovation in 2019

Teacher candidates who do not pass these tests, even though they have finished their program of study, are generally denied a standard license to teach by their state.

The report examined the undergraduate course requirements for teacher prep programs at each of 817 institutions, including both the general education coursework required of all students at an institution and the coursework required by the education program:

  • A tiny percentage of teacher prep programs (3 percent) require courses to ensure candidates gain foundational knowledge across science topics. For example, instead of directing teacher candidates to a basic chemistry course (or first requiring evidence of the candidate’s knowledge of chemistry), candidates often have a choice of courses, such as how chemistry is used in art restoration or herbal medicines. Further, while some courses appear to be suitable, they are often too narrow in scope (e.g. “Lightning and Thunderstorms”) to benefit a teacher who lacks a broad knowledge of science.
  • Only a quarter of teacher prep programs (27 percent) require sufficient coursework in mathematics.
  • History, geography, and literature courses aligned with elementary standards are similarly absent from course requirements. For example, only half of all teacher prep programs even require an adequate course in children’s literature, in spite of the fundamental role it plays in all elementary curricula.

How we turned around our scheduling methods


Alpine School District in Utah serves over 82,000 students across 89 schools.

Biggest challenge:

Our student count in any given grade level (9-12) ranges from 450 students to almost 1,200. Therefore, you can imagine the challenges we  faced when we tried to schedule students using traditional methods.

We struggled to balance accommodating students, teachers, and registrars with an equitable process for students to get the classes they wanted and needed for graduation. As a large district, our registrars were juggling teacher schedules, student needs, graduation requirements, and time restraints. Not to mention, students were left without immediate, side-by-side access to graduations requirements and available classes. It was a paper-trail fiasco.


We began our search for a new registration process by evaluating numerous scheduling formats ranging from future scheduling and arena scheduling to flexible modular scheduling and rotational scheduling.

We decided to adopt arena scheduling because it allowed students to have control over their own educational path—with input from parents and counselors, of course. We believed if students had more voice in their teacher, period, and semester, they would start with immediate buy-in for their classes.

Skyward, our student information system (SIS), paired very well with arena scheduling—offering our students and staff the best possible registration experience. The system is fast, reliable, and flexible (students register from anywhere they have internet access), and it lists graduation requirements during registration. We have had 700 students hit Skyward the first minute registration opens, and we have yet to crash.

From an organization standpoint, arena scheduling in Skyward has been a life saver. It levels the playing field, because any student who chooses to go online and schedule at the appointed time has an equal chance of getting the classes and teachers they desire. Plus, the system updates in real time, helping students avoid scheduling conflicts and overlap.

Related: App of the Week: Digital planning board

Finally, but perhaps most important, our registrars can adjust class numbers on the fly, add sections if they need, and make any other adjustments that pop up. Arena scheduling paired with Skyward truly maximized efficiency and minimized conflicts for our district.

Lessons learned:

  • Explore new options if traditional scheduling doesn’t fit your district’s needs.
  • Incorporate more student choice and accountability into your scheduling practices.
  • Leverage technology (like an SIS) to make your new scheduling process more efficient and user-friendly.
  • Don’t underestimate your staff, students, and parents. Arena scheduling can be introduced at all levels of your district. If our registrars can train elementary students to arena schedule—which they have—junior high and high school students shouldn’t have a problem.
  • Celebrate student achievements, no matter how small! Just take one short scroll through my Twitter account (@georgiaomer) and you will find me applauding students for their arena scheduling successes.

Next steps:

  • Several of our high school locations host 9th-grade students; we are beginning the process of having our incoming 9th-grade students use arena scheduling.
  • Our middle school locations are currently discussing and outlining ways to expand arena scheduling to junior high.
  • As our technology evolves, we will move with it and continue to meet as a team to determine futuristic goals.

Next week:

See how a high school English teacher turned around students’ confidence and test scores


Why K-12 accounts payable teams should embrace automation

Across the country, K-12 schools are embracing technology to strengthen learning and engagement inside the classroom. But while technology has an ever-increasing presence in the classroom, the opposite is often true when it comes to a district’s back-end operations.

Due to aging systems, many accounts payable (AP) departments within school districts still rely on manual, legacy, or proprietary systems to perform critical functions like expense and invoice submission and reimbursement. This lack of automation and visibility into their expenses can end up costing a school district more in the long run, due to errors and the increased time a non-automated system takes.

As technologies quickly advance, a delay in making updates to your systems can invite risk. So why are schools still leveraging antiquated technologies? Unfortunately, it’s typically not by choice. It comes down to budget constraints and aversion to change that can cause districts to stall investing in new systems.

A tale of an AP upgrade

At Rochester (NY) City School District (RCSD), I struggled to keep up with our error-prone paper-driven process. We had thousands of expense reports to process and were doing it all by hand. This paper-driven system was inefficient and ineffective in tracking mileage—one of the more numerous employee expenses for the 57 schools in our district. The amount of effort required to process these reports was taking a toll on my AP team. And the lack of visibility and potential for errors was ending up costing the district more in the long run.

With ever-changing government and industry regulations, I also became increasingly concerned about visibility into our spend and having the right data to make decisions that have a positive impact on my district. Our system, like so many other legacy systems that districts are still using today, just wasn’t capable of meeting growing expense and invoice management demands. Without approved and final expense reports, we had little time to identify unseen spend and liabilities that were lying around, which we typically received in paper form at the end of the year or during a new fiscal year.


How should we define SEL in schools?

We are often asked for the definition of social-emotional learning (SEL). One common and useful SEL definition is the process of learning to integrate thinking, feeling, and behaving in order to become aware of the self and of others, make responsible decisions, and manage behaviors.

2 SEL models

There are two SEL models or frameworks emerging as the consensus view.

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) developed an SEL model that promotes the inter-relationships between classrooms, schools, families, and communities.

A description of SEL

2. iSELF
The Integrated Self Model (iSelf) is an SEL model to teach understanding of the inner self and how the inner self interacts with others through cognitive and positive psychology attributes.

This figure depicts the four dimensions of the Integrated Self Model (iSelf) with positive psychology and cognitive psychology attributions. This model was first made available to practitioners and researchers in The Self in Schooling: How to Create Happy, Healthy, Flourishing Children in the 21st Century  (2013).

iSELF helps SEL dive deeper into imparting emotional and psychological attributes to children through schooling and family activities in order to impact mental health and well-being. The iSelf model takes a research- and evidence-based approach to teaching young people how to know themselves and to change their brains from experiencing mental illness to mental health, with a new vision of self, others, and all.

Related: 11 tips on creating a positive school climate

Dr. Frederick Brown, Penn State emeritus professor of the psychology of well-being, wrote, “[The] iSelf model emerges from the interaction of current scientific information about the direct influence by emotions, both positive and negative, upon cognitive functioning. These emotions, in turn, are based upon personal relevancy and meaningfulness and are the controlling switch by which effective learning takes place or not. A positive emotional approach facilitates a sense of well-being that, in turn, enhances a willingness to learn.”


6 of the coolest education grants we’ve ever heard about

Funding usually sits at the top of school leaders’ list of challenges, and for good reason–there’s only so much money to go around. That’s where education grants come in, and we’ve got some unique ones worth exploring.

Do you have community-oriented students who have fantastic ideas to solve specific challenges? Or maybe you’re a teacher who has used a certain beloved book series in core curriculum. And did we mention a cruise? (Yes, these are education grants.)

Read more: 6 district management challenges, solved

Whatever the need, the following 6 education grants are unique opportunities that could help engage students or refresh classrooms as the school year continues.

1. The Power of Youth Challenge invites youth to bring positive change to the community by leading a local service project, making a difference, and developing skills for use now and in the future. All young people ages 13-18 who want to improve their communities are eligible to apply. Project teams are encouraged and should be made up of at least 3 young people. Don’t know where to start? Follow these steps: Identify an issue in your community and learn more about it; start planning your project with your team; build a budget to implement your project; apply for a grant for up to $250 to make it happen; track your results and impact; tell your story to a larger community who are also making their communities better.

Deadline: March 31, 2019

2. The Magic Tree House 2019 Educator of the Year Award honors a teacher who creatively and successfully incorporates Magic Tree House fiction and nonfiction into the classroom curriculum. The winning entries will be judged on how well the children’s book series was used to teach subjects such as history, math, and science.

Deadline: April 12, 2019

3. The NoVo Foundation is committed to supporting the spread of social and emotional learning (SEL) practices in schools and districts nationwide. The fund aims to seed projects that foster social and emotional competencies in students in grades PK-12. Individual teachers and district-level applicants are invited to apply.

Deadline: March 22, 2019

4. Wayfair’s Dream Classroom Giveaway will award five teachers with brand-new classrooms. Winners of the education grants will be selected based on submissions from teachers, colleagues, administrators, students and families, as well as anyone in local communities who would like to recognize the incredible work of their hometown teachers. Classroom makeovers will include new desks and chairs, storage options, marker boards, a teacher’s desk, and more, tailored to the appropriate age group, with variations based on the needs of the students and the type of classroom.

Deadline: April 5, 2019

5. The KidWind Project and WindWinRI are hosting the 12th annual REcharge Academy at the University of Rhode Island’s Coastal Resources Center in Narragansett, RI on July 15-18, 2019. The four-day training will focus on wind power and the future of offshore wind. By providing the context and content needed to teach renewable energy concepts in their classrooms, this intensive training blends lectures on the science behind wind power and the politics, technologies and economics of the offshore wind energy industry with replicable hands-on STEM lessons for K-12 students.

Deadline: April 1, 2019 and May 15, 2019

6. The Norwegian Cruise Line Giving Joy campaign seeks to recognize and reward educators in the U.S. and Canada. Nominate an educator who demonstrates a passion for spreading the joy of learning (or, if you are one, nominate yourself!). The top 15 nominees will receive a free cruise for two, an exclusive invitation to an award ceremony on May 3 in Seattle (including airfare and accommodations) and the chance to win the grand prize of $15,000 for their school.

Deadline: April 12, 2019